I had the good fortune to spend the 4th of July holiday with my sister and her family last week. (What’s more fun than watching fireworks and hitting the park with a group of kids who think having their aunt visit is a vacation for them?!) Not surprisingly when I’m in the room, at some point the conversation turned to social media. And while I knew how prevalent the use of social media is among the young teens, I was surprised to learn that my 10-year old niece has friends who have Instagram accounts–and has been asking her parents if she could open an Instagram account herself.
If you’re a regular reader of The Realtime Report, you’re probably savvy enough to be aware of the myriad dangers related to online privacy, cyber-bullying and worse that parents of young social media users need to navigate. What makes it more complicated: just when you think you’ve got your arms around how to set boundaries that keep your kids safe on a platform like Facebook, they discover a whole new way to get into trouble. You may have heard about Snapchat, but have you hear about Ask.fm, which Shelly Kramer recently described as a parent’s “greatest nightmare”?
There’s a reason for the COPPA regulations that apply to web sites targeted to kids younger than 13, but the harsh reality is that kids younger than 13 are also using sites that are not required to comply with COPPA. Which is why–whether you allow your kid to have a social media profile or not–parents need to be talking about social media with kids who are much younger than 13.
I am not going to be the person who decides whether my 5th-grade niece will be allowed to join her friends on Instagram–only her parents can make that decision. But I did have a long conversation with her about kids and social media, in which I asked for her thoughts on how parents should help their kids use social media safely. Here’s the list of tips for parents that we wrote on a napkin over lunch:
1. Know how social media works and use it yourself.
If you’re going to guide your kids on how to use social media safely and wisely, you have to be comfortable with how the various platforms work yourself. Before you let your kids open their own accounts, set one up for yourself and use it for a few months so you can understand the nuances of each platform.
2. Talk to other parents and teachers in your community about social media.
Compare notes with the parents of your child’s friends about the boundaries you’re setting. If it’s your son’s or daughter’s first foray onto social media, you want to make sure you know who they’re going to be interacting with, and that the parents of online friends are also aware of what’s going on so that everyone can help monitor young social media users’ safety. It’s also a good idea to have a conversation with your child’s teachers and pull them into the support group.
3. Talk to your kids. And keep talking to them.
My niece was very familiar with the concept of “stranger danger.” I explained to her that the same safety rules that apply in the real world also apply in the online world: if you don’t know who someone is, you shouldn’t be talking to them. As a 5th grader, she was also very familiar with the concept of bullies–and quickly understood how cyber-bullying could be a problem. What happens if you experience or observe bullying? Talk to your parents about it. Social life is complex enough in the real world, and things can quickly escalate in the online world. Make sure your kids feel safe and comfortable talking to you about how to navigate complicated social situations, in real life or in realtime.
4. Your online friends should be your real friends.
My son was already 16 by the time he was interested in social media, and while we had many conversations about it, I also knew he was mature enough to set smart boundaries. If I had a younger child wanting to open an account on Facebook or Instagram today, I would make set a few rules to define who she could interact with:
- only accept friend requests from people that she was friends with in real life,
- do not accept any friend requests from anyone (even if you know them) without first asking me, and
- I would have to be in his or her circle of friends so I can monitor this.
My niece thought that these were really good rules.
5. Don’t be anonymous–but don’t over-share
No accounts under fake names or anonymous profiles. You need to know who the people you are interacting with are. But there are certain pieces of information you should never ever ever ever share, and these include:
- your age
- information about where you live
- any information that might let someone figure out your location
Talk to your kids about all the ways someone might be able to figure out their location, or what school they go to. If you want to arrange for a play date or meetup with your friends, do it by phone. My niece was quickly able to to think of 4 or 5 ways that you could accidentally over-share information like this. Keep giving your daughter new examples as you think of them so that this stays very top of mind for her.
6. No pictures of yourself or your friends
Once we had talked about the rules around over-sharing, my niece quickly understood why posting pictures would be a problem — pretty easy to see that you’re talking to someone very young if there’s a picture of a 13-year-old. But what about the profile picture, my niece wanted to know? Well — what are some things that you like? Odds are, when my niece does go online, you may see a picture of her dog, or maybe a flower that she likes, or maybe a cartoon drawing of some kind.
7. Don’t forget your good manners!
Good manners matter in the real world, and they matter on social media, too. Saying please and thank you, being kind to others, taking a moment to think about whether what you say might hurt someone’s feelings and paying compliments where you can–it pays to be polite, whether you’re on Pinterest or on the playground.
What do you think about my 5th-grade nieces’ tips for parents of kids who want to be on social media? Are there any we forgot?
And what do you think of the notion of kids younger than 13 using sites like Instagram?